The Ryanair Chase is always one of the most highly anticipated contests throughout the Cheltenham Festival. Jonathan Vine looks through the ante-post market and picks out a few strong candidates for the title.
Since its inaugural run in 2005, the Ryanair Chase has established itself as one of the premier races at the festival, with trainers and jockeys all dreaming about walking away from Prestbury Park with the coveted Festival Trophy. There may be a fairly sombre feeling throughout the throngs of onlookers in the build-up to the race, as they fondly remember last year’s champion Vautour, who sadly lost his life in a freak training ground accident earlier in the season.
The reigning champion’s tragic demise, combined with the dominance Douvan has displayed in the two mile chasing division, has forced Willie Mullins into pushing 2015 Arkle winner and Champion Chase runner-up, Un De Sceaux
) into the Ryanair picture. The reigning Tingle Creek and Clarence House champion is no stranger to two-and-a-half mile contests – boasting an unbeaten record in his three previous attempts at trips between 19 and 21.5 furlongs.The nine-year-old was pushed all the way to the line by Sire De Grugy on his way to Grade 1 success of the season at Sandown, but the way he finished that race - along with the staying power he displayed at many points during the last campaign – suggests a step up from two miles will suit him very well.
2015 Ryanair winner, Uxizandre
) made his long-awaited return from injury in the rescheduled Clarence House at Ascot. Alan King's nine-year-old showed understandable signs of ring rust and trailed the pack for the majority of the race. However, once he found a nice rhythm over his fences, he looked more and more like the champion of old and eventually crossed the line second, just five lengths behind Un De Sceaux. If he gets off to a better start at the Festival, many will fancy that five-length gap being much narrower, so it's was no surprise to see him jump to second in the betting after his Ascot comeback.Ruby Walsh riding Un De Sceaux clear to win the Clarence House at Ascot in January.Josses Hill
) returns to the Ryanair with a bit of a point to prove, having finished a distant eighth in last year’s renewal, but Nicky Henderson will be very encouraged by his charges recent displays in big Graded contests. He may have finished last in the King George VI Chase, but he came home just three lengths behind Cue Card in second and that three mile marathon was a little further than he would ideally like. The nine-year-old began his new season with a victory over the capable Camping Ground in a two-horse contest at Kempton, before easing to victory ahead of Tea For Two in the Grade 2 Peterborough Chase at Huntington.
Henry De Bromhead’s Sub Lieutenant
) has been turning heads over in Ireland after displaying plenty of excellent early season form. Two third placed finishes in Grade 1s bookend two impressive victories in high profile contests, including a three length victory over future Lexus Chase winner, Outlander in a Grade 2 at Down Royal in November. It was a blow to lose out to Sizing John in the Kinloch Brae Chase at Thurles, but he still ran well in second place and could have a big say in the matter at Cheltenham.
) shot to the top end of the Gold Cup betting with his superb victory in the Irish Gold Cup at Leopardstown earlier in February, just weeks after landing the Kinloch Brae Chase at Thurles on just his second attempt at a trip longer than two miles. John Harrington’s charge has now won six of the seven races he has started where Douvan hasn’t been opposing him in the field. His only crack at a two-and-a-half mile trip before this season had ended in a distant defeat to Arzal at the Aintree Festival, but having proven his quality over longer trips in recent weeks, he deserves his sport near the top of the betting in both Championship races.
Taquin Du Seuil
(20/1 William Hill
) has won over course-and-distance here at Cheltenham three times over the years, with the most recent of those victories coming earlier this season, when he carried his large weight burden all the way to the winners enclosure in the BetVictor Gold Cup Handicap Chase. He didn’t disgrace himself on his first trip to Leopardstown on his last appearance, running on well for fifth in the Lexus Chase - so back at a more favourable distance, he could be a big Ryanair danger.
Since finishing third behind Vautour at Cheltenham last season, things haven’t gone to plan for two-time Grade 1 winner, Road To Riches
). The odds-on favourite was beaten to a Grade 2 title by Smashing shortly after his festival defeat and results have gone from bad to worse since then – with the ten-year-old failing to finish two of his four races, coming home a distant eighth in the Lexus Chase on his last appearance.
(20/1 William Hill
) was one of the unluckiest entrants at last year’s festival, when a farcical start to the JLT saw him standing sideways when the flag was raised and in his haste to turn in the right direction, a furious Davy Russell was sent sliding out of the saddle. That disappointment didn’t seem to do the duo much harm, as they bolted up at Punchestown to claim the Champion Novice Chase crown, over an extended three mile trip. His first win of the new season was over two-an-a-half miles at Gowran Park, before finishing seventh in the Lexus, so if Andrew Lynch had to choose between going for the Ryanair or the Gold Cup, this race seems like the most likely possibility.
A. P. McCoy won the JLT with Taquin du Seuil at the festival in 2014. God’s Own
) won the Melling Chase over this trip at Aintree last spring, but after good recent outings over two miles, the Champion Chase could be on his agenda. Outlander
) is also prominent in the Ryanair ante-post market, but Gordon Elliott has said his Lexus Chase champion will be gunning for the Gold Cup.
) is a tenacious front-runner with a very good record around Cheltenham. When he gets into his running at the front of the field, he is usually difficult very difficult to overcome. Kylemore Lough
) beat Outlander to a Grade 1 Ryanair title at Fairyhouse back in March and if the eight-year-old tidies up the jumping problems he has shown at times this year, then he could be worth a small each-way punt at his current lofty odds.
Uxizandre has to be considered a threat after the terrific showing he put in at Ascot. As does Josses Hill, who is due a good result in a huge, festival Grade 1. Sizing John deserves a mention and he will be a huge danger if the Ryanair is his chosen path. But after that excellent victory in the Irish Gold Cup, the Cheltenham equivalent looks like his most probable destination. Taquin Du Seuil is the outstanding each-way candidate for an ante-post punt, but looking back to the head of the field, UN DE SCEAUX is the one everyone has to beat.
Stepping up in trip from two miles will do him the world of good and his jumping has been very solid since that surprise fall at Leopardstown two Christmases ago. Obviously, a bit of give in the ground will be a boost to his chances, but the nine-year-old will be desperate to avenge his defeat at the hands of Sprinter Sacre in the Queen Mother last year and the Ryanair looks like an ideal opportunity for Un De Sceaux to claim a second Cheltenham Festival title.
16/3/2017 2:30pm Cheltenham selection – UN DE SCEAUX (5/2 SkyBet)